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VA emphasizes education before Post-9/11 GI Bill switch

WASHINGTON (AFRNS) -- As the Department of Veterans Affairs is accepting sign-ups for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, officials are encouraging anyone considering enrolling in the program to get educated about it first to ensure it is right for them.

The Post-9/11 Bill that takes effect Aug. 1 has generated a lot of buzz. Besides broader educational benefits, it includes a popular provision that will enable enrollees to transfer their benefits to immediate family members.

But before electing to shift to the new program from the Montgomery GI Bill or another VA-sponsored education program, Keith Wilson, director of education service for the Veterans Benefits Administration recommends people get the facts first. Shifting to the new program is an irrevocable decision.

"It's a great program, and it's going to be beneficial for a lot of veterans," Mr. Wilson said of the Post-9/11 benefit. But jumping too quickly to sign up without fully evaluating it ultimately could shortchange some people, he said.

So as VA works to get word out about the Post-9/11 GI Bill, it has also geared up a big education campaign about what it does and does not deliver.

"The important thing to remember is that this is one of several programs we administer, all of which have different eligibility criteria," Mr. Wilson said. "The program that is best for the individual veteran is not always going to be the Post-9/11 GI Bill."

Among questions Mr. Wilson encourages people to consider when making the decision are:

-- Which benefit will pay more? This needs to factor in, not just what VA pays, but also the impact on any other educational assistance the person receives. For example, if the student attends school in one of the many states that offers veterans free tuition or receives another form of state or campus aid, will switching to the Post-9/11 benefit change that?

-- What tier of benefit are they eligible for under the Post-9/11 GI Bill? The program includes three payments: tuition and fees, a living allowance, and a book and supply stipend. But current active-duty people cannot receive the living allowance.

-- What type of training do they want to pursue? Not all training covered by the Montgomery GI Bill, for example, is covered by the Post-9/11 bill. The new benefit, for example, does not cover technical school training.

-- How long do you expect to take to use the benefit? The Post-9/11 GI Bill pays out benefits for 15 years, five years longer than the Montgomery GI Bill benefit.

-- Do you plan to attend school less than full-time? It will affect whether you receive the housing allowance under the Post-9/11 benefit.

-- Do you plan to transfer your unused benefits to an immediate family member? Only the Post-9/11 benefit offers that option.

"There are a series of things, both monetary and nonmonetary, that individuals need to consider," Mr. Wilson said.

Mr. Wilson encourages anyone eyeing the new Post-9/11 program to read up about it on the VA Web site. Those who need additional assistance can click on a link on the site to e-mail VA officials with a question, or can talk with a VA benefits counselor by calling (888) 442 4551, he said.

"We're emphasizing education so people understand the full range of our educational programs," Mr. Wilson said. "We really want to be sure we tailor the best program to the individual."

Meanwhile, a disabled Iraqi war veteran now serving as a top VA official is going to some unprecedented lengths to ensure servicemembers and veterans alike understand the opportunities available to them through the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Tammy Duckworth, who was confirmed recently as VA's assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, taped a YouTube video earlier this week to encourage those who qualify for the benefit to check it out.

Although the new benefit does not take effect until Aug. 1, Ms. Duckworth said it is time to get busy now so people can make decisions about enrolling in the program in time to use it to cover educational costs during the upcoming fall semester.

"Right now is when students are getting their acceptance letters from universities and trying to decide what school they are going to," she said.

Similarly, she said, current servicemembers may be making decisions about whether they will re-enlist in the military, and whether they can afford college.

Defense Department officials emphasize that applicants must be on active duty or in the Selected Reserve on Aug. 1 to qualify for transferability provisions under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Ms. Duckworth is busy tapping into just about any communications vehicle available -- from the VA Web site to newsletters to veterans service groups and community outreach -- to help get word out about the new benefit.

She is also hoping the YouTube video will help.

"It's to put a face of another [Operation Iraqi Freedom] veteran out there telling other OIF vets, 'You have earned these benefits, this is going to start in August,' and encouraging them to get more information so they can decide if this is right for them," she said.

Ms. Duckworth understands her audience well.  A member of the Illinois Army National Guard, she was deployed to Iraq in November 2004 when militants attacked the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting.  The rocket-propelled grenade cost Ms. Duckworth both legs and severely damaged her right arm.

Now, as she reaches out to fellow veterans of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, Ms. Duckworth emphasized that she is not "selling" the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

"There are three different GI bills that they can choose from," she said, echoing Mr. Wilson.  "Just because this is the newest doesn't mean this is the most appropriate for the veteran.  They have to get good information so they can make the best decision as to whether or not the Post-9/11 GI Bill is the right one for them."

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